"Getting some of my eyesight back is a wonderful feeling, but nothing is more important than having my family by my side the entire time," Larry Hester tells PEOPLE

By Caitlin Keating
Updated March 05, 2015 02:15 PM
Credit: Courtesy Larry and Jerry Hester

Larry Hester walks around New York City’s Times Square looking out at a world he hasn’t been able to see for 33 years – until now.

The 67-year-old from Raleigh, North Carolina, couldn’t stop smiling during his visit to New York City Tuesday. Along with seeing Times Square, he visited the 9/11 Memorial, Central Park and Columbus Circle and never once turned his head away from looking out the window of an SUV that drove him around.

“Oh my gosh, the lights,” he says while squeezing his wife Jerry’s hand on world-famous 42nd Street. “They’re everywhere.”

Larry, outgoing and optimistic, went blind when he was 33 after being diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease with no effective treatment or cure. On Oct. 1, he was given a bionic eye from the Duke Eye Center that has changed his life forever, and now, for the first time, he makes his way around Manhattan not just taking in the sounds and smells, but for the first time in his life, the sights.

The bionic eye, which is called an Argus II Retinal Prosthesis Device, acts as a visual aid that sends light signals to Larry’s brain. Currently, 15 people in the United States have received the implant.

It will not restore his normal eyesight, but it has helped him distinguish where things are and how light or dark they are. Before he got his bionic eye, Larry wasn’t even able to tell if the sun was shining or if it was pitch black out.

“It might seem basic, but for Larry and others in this position, this is changing their lives. Their quality of life is very different now,” says Dr. Michael Smith, the chief medical editor at WebMD, which profiled Larry in its The Future of Health online video series. “Electrodes are implanted on the patient’s retina, and the patient wears eyeglasses that have a video camera.”

The camera captures images, which go to the video processor unit that Larry wears on his hip. It then sends the electrical impulses wirelessly back to the retina.

Larry can now see the difference between a door and a wall, knows where to find a water glass placed on a dining room table, and most important, for him, knows exactly where to put his hand when he wants to touch his wife’s cheek.

He cranes his neck to see the billboards, the World Trade Center and the beautiful, pre-war residential buildings along Central Park. His bionic eye lets him know that he isn’t in Raleigh anymore. Instead, he can make out the flashing lights and the grand buildings.

Larry never lets go of Jerry’s hand on this frigid winter day.

The Diagnosis

Larry and Jerry have been married for 46 years, but they still remember the early days of their relationship like it was yesterday.

“He has always been the most loving husband,” Jerry says. “We have had a wonderful life.”

They had two children, a boy named Chip and a girl named Ellen. Larry worked for the family tire business.

When his eyesight started to decline when he was 30, the couple never expected the shocking diagnosis.

“They told me that within a few years I would become completely blind,” Larry says. “There was no way to prepare for it.”

But what came next reassured him that despite the devastating news, he would be okay.

“We sat in the parking lot of the doctor’s office and I told him I would never leave his side,” Jerry says. “I said that things would definitely change, but that I loved him and promised him we would get through this.”

Looking into the 9/11 Memorial reflection pool 36 years later, it’s obvious Jerry kept her word.

Lights Out

As Larry’s vision became worse, he wanted to make sure he didn’t just look at his children, but memorized their faces. He did this so that when his world became black, he could still see them.

Larry still remembers their distinct features and Jerry’s piercing blue eyes.

“I recall what a sunrise and sunset looks like and the striking color of the ocean when we went on vacation in St. Thomas,” says Larry.

Every single day, Jerry would drive him to the tire store where he worked alongside his brother.

As different as their life was to most families, it became their new normal.

With his new device, Larry can rake the leaves like he always has, but he can now see the outline of the rake. When Jerry asks him to pick up the cleaner on the kitchen counter, he can find it without knocking it over, and when he washes the car he doesn’t accidentally kick over the bucket of water next to it.

“This might seem small to some people,” Jerry says. “But this is huge for us.”

Growing Closer

Larry’s loss of his eyesight was the ultimate test of their marriage. But it brought the couple even closer together.

“I’m afraid to think of what my life would be like without her,” Larry says, choking up. “I’m sure I would somehow manage, but there would be a tremendous loss and void in my life. I’m the luckiest man on the earth.”

Jerry feels the same way.

“Most people would have become very depressed over the years,” she says. “But Larry has never complained once. He was still able to provide for our family and worked extra hard to make sure he could. He was always present.”

They both admit that there have been sad times but that the love and values they had before Larry lost his sight didn’t diminish with his vision.

“Something like this puts everything into perspective,” Larry says.

When Larry walks into Central Park, he can see the snow on the edges of the sidewalk and the outside of the tall buildings in the background.

“To be here at the most famous park in this amazing city and actually see some of it is the best feeling in the world,” Larry says. Once again, he is holding Jerry’s hand, not out of fear, but out of comfort knowing she is experiencing this moment with him.

“This is a big day for us. A very big day.”